The environmental impact study for a new airport in Letcher County should be completed within weeks and be passed to the Federal Aviation Administration for its approval.
So far, no environmental impact is projected to be caused by construction on the former strip mine site. Once the FAA issues a finding of no significant impact (FONSI), the board just has to wait for the next round of grant money. That could mean construction beginning in 2023 and completion in 2025 or 2026.
“The project will basically move at the speed of money,” said Paul Steely, a consultant working with the county airport board.
That speed limit could increase if two acts now before Congress are approved. The Jobs for Economic Recovery Act of 2021, also known as the infrastructure bill, proposed by President Joe Biden includes $25 billion dollars for airports. A separate Republican-sponsored bill, The Expedited Delivery of Airport Infrastructure Act of 2021 (H.R. 468), is also moving through Congress and would allow airport authorities to use up to $1 million in additional federal money to give contractors incentives to speed up construction of new airports.
Neither bill is sure to pass. HR 468 has been reported out of committee and sent to the full House for consideration. The White House and Democrats in Congress are negotiating with Republicans who want to cut the proposed $2 trillion infrastructure bill by two-thirds and do away with a proposed corporate tax hike that would raise the maximum rate companies pay to 28 percent from 21 percent. Prior to a corporate tax cut passed by the then Republican-controlled Congress during the Trump administration, the maximum rate was 35 percent.
Whatever Congress does, the Letcher County airport has to wait for completion of an airport in Gallatin County in northern Kentucky. Grade work is complete or nearly complete on that, and the runway is to be paved this year. Lights and buildings will come next year, Steely said.
“Right now, it depends on when the grants are actually issued. We may be able to land aircraft before the end of this year and come back next year and put the lights and things in,” said Steely. The company he represents, PDC Consultants, is working on both the Gallatin County and Letcher County projects.
Steely said even if only HR 468 passes Congress it would be an indirect help to Letcher County, because if would get the other project out of the way and clear the field for the airport here.
Steely said work has continued on the airport in Letcher County despite the lack of visible progress.
“It’s not real exciting right now because we’re doing the environmental part of it, but that’s part of making progress,” he said. “We hope to be done with that in the next few weeks, and after that we’ll be looking for money to start the design.”
Each step of the process requires federal approval. Realistically, Steely said, that could mean the project doesn’t get finished until late 2025 or 2026.
“When we start one, it usually takes three construction seasons to get it done,” he said.
That is also a function of money, he said. If the county had enough money approved at one time, work could be completed faster.
Joe DePriest, chairman of the airport board, said until the environmental impact study is complete, there will be very little for the board to do.
“The good news is it’s still a viable, live project as they call it,” DePriest said. “The downside it’s going to be a couple of years before they start doing any actual construction.”
So far, the local airport board has spent more than $1 million in state money over the past 20 years preparing to build the new airport and has secured all of the property necessary to build it.